Forging a Korea in translation

Earlier this year, a survey commissioned by Man Booker International found that translated fiction is punching well above its weight. The same survey also noted that UK sales of Korean books shot up, from 88 copies in 2001 to 10,191 in 2015, and a good number of those will have been for Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.

This breakout success, which will have been many people’s first encounter with Korean literature, means readers, booksellers and publishers are clamouring for the next thing from South Korea. Conveniently for me, Tilted Axis, the not-for-profit press I founded last year, is about to publish One Hundred Shadows, a novel that won the Korean equivalent of the IMPAC Award. I first came across it when Han said its author, Hwang Jungeun, was her favourite of the younger generation, in a co-interview we did promoting The Vegetarian. Our edition has a lovely introduction by Han, in which she praises the book’s “unforgettable beauty”, and a blurb by author Helen Oyeyemi, singling out the “shimmering lucidity” of Jung Yewon’s translation. Translator shout- outs are par for the course for Oyeyemi; her thoughtful press mentions of The Vegetarian made me think of her as a potential cheerleader for Hwang.

Other languages have seen a big hit translate into a short-term burst of interest, but failed to capitalise on this and turn it into a sustained trend. I doubt that will be the case with South Korea. One area where Korean fiction has a distinct advantage is funding. As well as fully funding the translation of One Hundred Shadows, The Daesan Foundation is contributing to the costs of flying Hwang over for a UK tour. We’re kicking off at the Manchester Literature Festival on 17th October, before stints in Sheffield, at Dundee Literary Festival (its tireless organiser, Peggy Hughes, interviewed Han last year in Edinburgh) and then to London for a launch at the London Review Bookshop, an invaluable supporter of translation and indie presses, which also happened to be the venue for The Vegetarian’s UK launch, chaired by me and what now feels like decades ago.

October will be Hwang’s second visit to the UK. In July, I had the pleasure of leading my second workshop on Korean literary translation as part of the British Centre for Literary Translation’s (BCLT) famous summer school. This is made possible by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, which pays for a group from its “translation academy” to participate in the workshop, as well as the author whose work is being translated: Hwang Jung Eun this year, Han Kang last year.

I’ve been working closely with the BCLT and its partner organisation, Writers’ Centre Norwich (WCN), since I was asked to join the steering committee for the Korea Market Focus at the 2014 London Book Fair. The summer schools aren’t the only UK–Korea collaborations to have grown out of the connections made through the programme. In 2014, the author Bae Suah visited on a residency, hosted by WCN and funded by the Korean Arts Council, and it was my turn to be starstruck: I’ve translated two of her novels and am in awe of her eccentric genius. In 2015 we got Han, and next year we’re hoping for Tilted Axis’ second Korean author, Han Yujoo. That’s not nailed down yet, but one thing is for sure: Korean literature is here to stay.

Deborah Smith is a Man Booker International-winning translator.